Friday Films: The Crow (1994)

The Crow 2

There’s not a lot of movies out there that I will honestly say moved me. Sure, there’s a lot that I enjoy, or may have given me an emotional moment, but very few that I think really and truly hit me on not just that emotional level, but an intellectual one as well.

Hmm… that’s still not right. I don’t really know how to explain this in a way that makes sense. I’m not even sure there is a way. Sometimes, it’s just a thing that can’t be explained. An experience that you have, that leaves a mark on you. I think that may be the best way to say it, really, as I think most people can relate to that.

It’s kind of like how Evangelion hit a lot of people, I think.

The point I’m fumbling about and failing to make here is that, while I love film, I don’t ever go see a movie more than once. Even movies I really enjoyed. I go, I watch it, and that’s that. I never make return visits. It’s not like it’s some sort of policy or anything, so much as it is, I had the experience I went for, and going again won’t give me the same experience, so why do it?

Yes, yes, that makes no sense, either. I’m all about trying to explain the inexplicable today. Deal with it, already.

There has been, in my life, exactly one exception to that. Only one film I went to see not just a second time, but six times. I happily plopped down my money, six times over four weeks, to see the same movie, and got the exact same experience, every single time. That’s not something I can say about any other movie, ever.

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This is us right now…

Sure, I’ve got my favorites. Serenity remains probably one of my all time favorite films, and I’ve seen it so many times I can almost quote the whole movie start to finish. The exerciser I get from that, however, is very different than the one I’m talking about now. For all that I love it, Serenity is a film that brings me joy, but does not leave me at a loss for words.

No, there’s only been two films to ever do that. One I never got to see in theaters, and the other, that I went to six times, in four weeks.

This is the latter one, in case you were wondering.

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Was not wondering

The Crow is a 1994 film from Dimension Films and Miramax, based on a successful comic book by James O’Barr. It’s also the final film for Brandon Lee, the son of Bruce Lee.

From here, things are gonna get kind of hard to explain. If you’ve seen this movie, you probably already know why. It’s because this is one really hard movie to explain. Or rather, the reason it resonates is hard to explain. Or maybe that’s still not quite it.

See what I mean?

The story follows a man named Eric Draven, played by Brandon Lee. Set in Detroit, the night before Halloween is Devil’s Night, when arsonists run rampant across the city. On that night, Eric Draven died, and so did his fiancee, Shelly. They were to be married the next day.

Shelly, as it turns out, was making a fuss about the slum like conditions of the building they lived in, so some thugs came around to make her shut up, but murdering her. Eric, returning home in the midst of the assault, is shot, stabbed, and thrown from window, falling several stories to his death. Shelly’s death took much longer.

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What they call an average night in Detroit

One year after this, Eric returns from the dead, to hunt down the men responsible, and exact revenge. Guided by a crow, Eric stalks the night in mime like makeup, murdering those who took his love from him, an unstoppable specter of vengeance.

On the surface, this has all the makings of a half way decent B-movie. Certainly not a highly successful feature film that has gone on to spawn multiple sequels and a television series. The laws of diminishing returns took care of the B-movie part starting right about the second film, however. This one, the first one, really does stand out for a whole lot of reasons.

Much of that comes down to the actors. Of course, there’s Brandon Lee, who’s tragic death during filming certainly adds a rather unnatural quality to the movie as a whole. It’s even more tragic, however, as this film would have made a super star of him. His range, as an actor, is on full display here, and watching him is simply mesmerizing. How easily he shifts from avenging monster, to a lost soul, to sympathetic hero, to raging anti-hero, sometimes with in a single scene, is staggering.

This was his movie, without a doubt. This was his finest work, so incredibly early in his career, and in his life. This was a role that would have defined him as an actor, and that he could not follow it with more is a loss to the world. As surely as his death is a loss, the ending of this amazing talent is as well.

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Thanks, man.

Giving him someone as capable as Ernie Hudson to play off of, however, was pure genius. Hudson, best known as Winston from the Ghostbusters films, plays Sergent Albrecht, the police officer who initially handles the deaths of Eric and Shelly. Later, he becomes an allie to the reborn Eric, helping him in his crusade against the thugs that robbed him of everything.

Hudson is a truly great actor, and of that, I doubt there’ll be any argument. Here, though, he plays a man who cannot deny the evidence, but cannot believe the truth. As he comes to terms with what is happening, he sees hope for a city that has lost even the memory of it, and though it goes against his beliefs as a police officer, he helps this undead man stop people the law can’t touch. Through all of this, Hudson gives a conflicted, uncertain performance, grasping for the impossible in fear and doubt.

It’s brilliant to watch.

The films main antagonist is a character named Top Dollar, who runs all the crime in Detroit, and is played by Michael Wincott in a role that, to be honest, probably hurt him more than it helped. I say that because he defined it so well, it’s hard to see him as anyone else, ever again. He’s great, and I love him in this, because he’s unrepentantly evil, but not in the mustache twirling way. He’s just completely immoral.

He is outshone, however, by David Patrick Kelly as T-Bird, the thug who lead the attack on Shelley and Eric. If you do not know who this man is, I am deeply ashamed of you, and I can remind you, very quickly, of exactly who we are talking about.

“Warriors…come out to play-ee-ay!!”

Yeah. That’s the guy.

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He means me.

If you don’t know that reference, I don’t… I can’t… just… no.

Kelly’s performance is… impossible to capture with words. He’s a bad man, who does bad things, and feels no remorse. Yet, when faced with the reborn Eric, he alone, of everyone, truly understands that he deserves what is happening to him. He knows why it’s happening, why he’s going to die, and that it is justice. Not just vengeance, but just, that he die by this man’s hand. It is one hell of a performance, and one of the most powerful scenes in the film, and Kelly, being the amazingly talented actor that he is, captures this moment so well. This monster of a human, who has never experienced remorse for his actions, feeling it for the first time. Not because he’s about to die, but because he sees himself, and that he deserves it.

I can’t even really explain it. It’s something you have to see. It’s incredible.

The film also stars Bai Ling, before she went crazy, Rochelle Davis as Sarah, a girl who was sort of adopted by Shelley and Eric before their death, the legendary Tony Todd, Michael Massee, who recently appeared in the Amazing Spider Man films as The Gentleman, Laurence Mason, of Prison Break and The Shield, and Angel David.

It also features one of my all time favorite actors, a man I greatly respected, and admired, so much so I have based characters on him in my own work, for many years. Jon Polito, who passed away in 2016, was, and remains, one of the great character actors of any generation. Known for his amazing kindness, and generosity, he was one of those rare people who could play pretty much any role you wanted. He could be a villain, or a hero, or anything in between.

I loved watching that man work. He was truly special.

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Truly, I adored this man.

Everyone in this movie delivers a memorable performance, no matter how big or small their role. It’s one of those kinds of films, where every actor makes the character so much more than what they seem. I mean, even Tony Todd’s small role is imbued with personality, and a sense of this being a person beyond what the script requires.

Like I said, it’s just one of those movies where everyone is perfect in their role.

That’s only part of what makes this film work, though. There’s two other things, the first of which is the look of it. This movie is drenched in gothic noir. It’s exudes it, and drags you into it. Every scene, every frame, every inch of set design, and costuming, is just bathed in this aesthetic, and rather than seeming pretentious, it feels lived in. Like this is a world that really exists.

I thin that’s the thing about it that holds me so firmly. This movie feels like looking into a world next door to our own.

At the time it came out, I was highly susceptible to this influence, and it remains a thing that fascinates me even now. Back then, though, 21 year old me was heavily into White Wolf’s World of Darkness role playing games, which where built heavily on a gothic noir fusion with punk. This movie is what that world should look like, and it transfixed me then, as surely as it does now.

It is unique, is the thing. I’ve never seen this kind of thing successfully captured, in quite this way, outside of maybe one other film. I’ll get to that later, however, or possibly in another review.

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I’m into this kinda thing, apparently.

Much of the visual style comes down to production designer Alex McDowell creating a dark and twisted version of reality, and the cinematography of Darius Wolski, who gave us often dizzying sweeping shots through the surreal cityscape McDowell had created. Combined with overhead aerial shots of events taking place far below, add to the effect, giving us a literal birds eye view, that plays to the film’s title, and the supernatural harbinger that ties Eric’s soul back to the land of the living.

Basically, I guess what I’m saying here, is this movie has a look, style, and feel to it that enhances the story in ways few films ever manage. Every set, every prop, everything in it, is tied to the story, and helps sell the narrative. It’s almost like an anime come to life, except good. Cause, ya know, that whole Death Note thing happened, and we all kind of expect live action anime adaptions to suck now. This is how they should look, I suppose. Set design and all that, that enhances the story with strong visual style.

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That… is a terrible analogy.

The last thing that really brings this all together is the music. There’s a ton of songs in this film, besides just the background score. Many of the movies biggest scenes are set to those songs, rather than the incidental music, giving the whole thing this almost music video vibe. Good music videos, of course, not the crappy ones.

Okay, that’s a lot harder to explain. It’s fair, cause this whole movie is hard to explain. It’s just hard to describe what makes this all work.

Songs from The Cure, Stone Temple Pilots, Nine Inch Nails, Rage Against the Machine, Rollins Band, Pantera, and many more are peppered all through this movie, creating this constant, melodic cacophony that is like having the gothic noir visuals shoved in your ears. It’s fucking magic.

Between the amazing acting, stunning visuals, and powerful music, the whole thing is lightening in a bottle, that studios have been trying to recapture ever since. Each sequel tries to make it work again, but is lacking something, and ends up feeling like a poor imitation.

Even original author of the comic, James O’Barr has stated that he doubts anyone will ever be able to recreate what made this movie work, and he wasn’t overly happy with this movie, as he felt it didn’t really capture his work. So, yeah. It wasn’t a great adaptation of his story, but it’s still the best we’re ever going to get, and I have to agree.

This is not a movie that can ever be made again. It just can’t.

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You can’t repeat this kind of magic

The movie was directed by Alex Proyas, who also directed Dark City, the only other movie I feel safe comparing to this one, as well as stuff like Gods of Egypt. Honestly, I really loved Proyas’ early work, like this and Dark City, but of late, I can’t really say I’ve found him to be that effective.

Here, he’s amazing. How he frames each scene, how he does everything, is just really awe inspiring. He would repeat this later in Dark City, another movie I really love, and would like to review, though I think it’d be even more confusing than this review is.

Since then, though, I dunno. I’ve not really cared by his latest stuff. There’s something misisng. Back in the mid 90’s, he was like a breath of fresh air, doing amazing things. Since then… not so much. I dunno. I guess I keep hoping he’ll do something like this again.

The script was written by David J. Schow, who is often credited as the father of splatterpunk, with movies like Texas Chainshaw Massace 3, and The Beginning, to his name. He’s much more restrained here. This is definitely the sort of thing I wish he’d do more of.

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Or not… ya know… whatever…

Working with him on the script was John Shirley, an author of science fiction and fantasy, as well as being the guy who wrote almost all the lyrics for three of Blue Oyster Cult’s albums. So, yeah, also a musician. Actually, I think a lot of what makes this movie work the way it does was his writing, as the way the music, story, and visuals intersect probably largely came from him. It would take me a while to properly list all of his credits, much less the awards he’s won, so when comparing him to Schow, I’m gonna give most of the credit to Shirley.

Graeme Revell, who is probably most well known for having composed the music to the original From Dusk till Dawn film, scored the music that is not actual songs. I’m not even gonna try to describe what he did, either. It’s… etheric punk, I guess, is the best way I can phrase it. It’s seriously cool, but really hard to explain. Revell has a lot of really wild, and great compositions on his resume, but of them all, this is the one I’ll always have the hardest time explaining.

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Let me get comfy and try, though…

Overall, as I said before, this is a really hard movie to review, at least in the way I usually do it. It’s deep, profound, full of moments that are philosophical, metaphorical, and bear considerable weight. It’s a meaningful film, about love, and that’s probably the thing that keeps making it so fascinating to me, that I’ve worn out two VHS copies, and I’m on my second dvd of it.

For all that’s it’s this dark, gothic film, it’s about love, and Eric’s quest for vengeance isn’t for himself, it’s for Shelley. He needs to avenge her. He doesn’t give a crap about himself. All of this, it’s for her. So, it’s sort of a supernatural love story, but with lots of violence, and this crazy soundtrack, and amazing visuals.

It’s just… different.

Some people like to compare it to Blade Runner, but I don’t think that really works, personally. The visuals may have a few similarities, but Blade Runner is sci fi noir, not gothic. Not really. So, for me, this one still stands out as this really amazing experience, that, even after all of this typing, I feel like I’ve failed to really capture in any way.

Because, ya know, some movies you just can’t explain. Some need to be seen. This is one of those.

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